Connections shelter users

Humberto Delgado (left) and Adam Hester talk about their stays at Connections Shelter. The two hoped to spend Thanksgiving with family, but said they'd likely end up at the shelter at Crossview Covenant church for the evening. As regulars, they said they've grown close to fellow guests and look out for each other as they try to get back on their feet. Photo by Pat Christman

MANKATO — The homeless shelter rotating between six Mankato churches reached its 25-guest capacity for the first time this week.

Organizers started the Connections Shelter on Oct. 29 with confidence they’d be filling a community need, but getting that many guests that quickly was a surprise. It’s further evidence, said Rev. Erica Koser of Centenary United Methodist, that a year-round homeless shelter is needed in Mankato.

"That’s the long-term Connections goal,” she said.

Any plans for such a shelter are in their embryonic stages at best. As it stands, regular shelter guests say they’re just grateful to have a warm, welcoming place to stay Thanksgiving evening and beyond.

“When you overwhelmed yourself, it’s nice to know you can go somewhere and be able to kick back, relax and be able to sleep,” said Kearah Tillman, who stays at the shelter while she saves money to get her own place.

Tillman has a job, but getting enough hours to pay for a deposit is an entirely different challenge. Other shelter regulars can relate.

Adam Hester is trying to get an ID and a phone so he can interview for jobs and have a way for the employers to contact him afterward. If not for the shelter, he said he’d risk running into trouble living outside.

“You get loitering or something like that and you just end up with a ticket you can’t afford,” he said. “And if you don’t pay the ticket, you’re going to end up in jail.”

Staying out in the cold wouldn’t just hurt his job chances, it’d be painful. He got frostbite on his hand when he was younger and now has arthritis.

“It hurts so bad in the cold winter season,” he said, holding out his hand to show crooked fingers.

The rotating homeless shelter, regardless of which church it’s housed at for the week, has become kind of like a home for Hester and others. But there’s one major distinction: They don’t want to be there.

As amenable as the churches have been, as friendly as the volunteers and staff are, as grateful as the guests are to have the shelter available, they said they want to find their own places to live as soon as possible.

“It’s not going to be a long-term anything,” Tillman said. “As soon as there’s a light to be able to get a place, we’re going to take the opportunity."

Hester said finding housing would allow others in need to stay at the shelter. Families get priority for spots.

“I know there are women and children that do need this situation,” he said.

Humberto Delgado, a guest since the shelter opened in late October, said he and the others don't want to get too comfortable staying at the shelter. Doing so could lead to complacence, which could keep them from their goal of finding permanent housing.

Delgado is optimistic he’ll be hired for a job soon. The good thing about a college town like Mankato, he said, is jobs often come available due to student turnover.

While he waits, the shelter offers a temporary home. Without it, he and another regular, Monta Seals, said they too would have to fend for themselves outside.

“They have people here to help you out and get back on your feet,” Delgado said. “It makes it a whole lot easier.”

Fellow guests help, too. Hester said the shelter has become like a family atmosphere where regulars show newcomers the ropes.

“Being that we were able to all accumulate at the shelter is good,” Hester said. “We know each other and all watch out for each other.”

They said the churches have been watching out for them as well. Arriving at Crossview Covenant for the church’s first shelter host week, Hester and the others found a gift bag with toothbrushes, toothpaste and treats on each of their beds.

Aaron Thompson, a pastor at the church, said the welcome package is part of the church’s “the best for our guests” mantra for the shelter.

“Our job is to provide a place where they feel safe, they feel welcomed and that they have a place to sleep,” he said.

Koser said Crossview has gone above and beyond for the shelter so far, a sentiment guests shared as well. Thompson estimated between 80 and 90 members of the church have expressed interested in helping with the shelter in the future.

“Now that we’re starting this, people have been waiting and wanting to get involved,” he said. “People are driven to make a big impact for the city.”

The shelter has had its share of logistical problems too, mainly having to do with capacity. Guests coming from the Twin Cities have been welcomed, Koser said, but organizers know the needs in Blue Earth and Nicollet counties are large enough on their own.

“I think it just speaks to the systematicness of the problem," Koser said. "When there are beds open, people are willing to travel for that."

The shelter is expected to remain full over Thanksgiving. Thompson said Crossview has told clients about community lunches put on by First Presbyterian and St. John's Episcopal at the former's location, and by the Mankato Elks at The Salvation Army.

Crossview will then serve turkey sandwiches as part of its nightly meal when guests arrive later Thursday. Tillman, Seals, Delgado and Hester said they hoped to spend Thanksgiving day with family. Some have relatives here, others in the Twin Cities. All said their likely destination Thursday evening would be the shelter.

“They’re good people," Tillman said. "Whoever is struggling, there’s still hope."

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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